Maggie’s Brain

Taja Will in "Maggie's Brain".

Taja Will in “Maggie’s Brain”.

Modern dance and schizophrenia are two subjects that many people initially shy away from. Weirdly, both topics provoke similar gut reactions from those unfamiliar with them: Isn’t it hard to understand? It’s so weird and unpredictable! What if I don’t get what’s going on?

Maggie’s Brain, presented at the Cowles Center this weekend only, will cure your doubts and skepticism about both modern dance and mental illness. Without a hint of condescension, it is an accessible introduction to both the nuances of dance vocabulary and the internal struggles of living – or loving someone – with schizophrenia.

Take the opening scene, for example: a normal evening in an upper-middle-class home. Parents and children update each other about their day, there is an exchange of friendly teasing, and everyone takes their seat around the dinner table. But there is a chair empty, and the tension slowly mounts as the family awaits the entrance of Maggie (Taja Will), the oldest daughter. Even once she sits down for dinner, her illness seems to take an additional seat at the table, rapidly corroding our image of familial normalcy. The genius part of the scene, though, is this: at the height of the conflict, the dancers suddenly hit rewind, zipping us backward into Maggie’s room at the beginning of the evening. And then we see it all happen again, only this time from Maggie’s point of view, complete with the five voices that she is desperately struggling to keep in check. This illustration of Maggie’s thought processes is not only an interesting view into the schizophrenic brain, but also a key to the language of the entire piece; in one simple scene, creators Jennifer Ilse and Paul Herwig have taught their audience how to understand the evening’s more abstract moments.

The dancers incorporate a variety of devices like this into the show, and as a modern dance novice, I appreciated how clear all of their metaphors are. The show’s designers also contribute to our understanding in pivotal ways: Kym Longhi‘s costume design pits Maggie’s voices against her real family by dressing them in fluorescent orange and yellow, in contrast to the drab grays of real life. Similarly, through the use of color and everyday household objects, Paul Herwig and Paul Epton‘s set and lighting designs highlight both the chaos and the fragility of Maggie’s world.

Maggie is not the only subject who receives such care and attention to detail. One of the most beautiful parts of the production is the compassionate way it treats Maggie’s family members, who, despite their own individual flaws, nevertheless struggle to pass along messages of love to a daughter and sister whose illness they may never truly understand. Even Maggie’s voices are each imbued with a distinct personality, from the hyper-critical mother figure to the obsessive-compulsive referee to the loving boyfriend who just wants to stay in bed and cuddle. Maggie’s psychiatrist also puts in an appearance in an intense and powerful duet that beautifully illustrates the push and pull of a growing therapeutic relationship.

This production, originally presented in 2007 and inspired by the experiences of Ilse’s own family, has also benefited from research by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). As part of the Cowles Center’s Meet the Company: Talk-Back series, there was a post-performance panel last night which placed the show in a broader context and provided invaluable insights into the connections between the family-level struggles depicted in Maggie’s Brain and national policies and programs relating to mental health. Even without the benefit of a talk-back, however, it is clear that the show’s creators and dancers have done their research into the implications of schizophrenia on both individuals and families. Just like the NAMI brochures available in the Cowles Center lobby, Maggie’s Brain treats its subject with compassion while refusing to sentimentalize or sugarcoat any of the facts. 

It is a shame that this show only runs for one weekend, as it provides a degree of insight that I have not often experienced from a dance performance. With movements that blend grace and violence, Maggie’s Brain defies stereotypes of schizophrenia and modern dance in an evening that will leave you both educated and emotionally moved. 

Maggie’s Brain, created by Jennifer Ilse & Paul Herwig. At the Cowles Center for Performing Arts, January 24/25/26, Fri/Sat 8pm & Sun 7pm. Full details at Tickets: Adults $25, Students/Seniors $23. Reservations: Reserve online at or call the box office at 612-206-3600.


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